Thursday, October 30, 2008

By the Banks of the River...

Young ghosts and ghouls will be making the rounds from door to door tonight seeking sweet rewards for their frightful efforts. Once again, it is time for telling ghost stories around a flickering campfire or visiting the local mega-plex to be scarred senseless by Hollywood's latest slasher movie sequel.

When our children were young my wife would accompany the little goblins on their quest for sugary treasure on Halloween, while I remained at home to dole out the candy. I would keep the lights low while the eerie pipe organ of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" played on the stereo, loud enough at times, to rattle the windows.

Tales of ghastly deeds and horrific stories abound in music. Most of the murder ballads of the Appalachian region were based on true events. Tragic stories of love gone horribly wrong are a common theme in these songs.

Many of the murder ballads found in the United States, although based on local events, can trace their roots to the ballads and broadsides of Ireland and England. "Knoxville Girl" is a direct descendant of the 19th century Irish ballad "The Wexford Girl", which may have been based on a 17th century English broadside "The Cruel Miller", sometimes known as "The Bloody Miller".

The sad tale of "Omie Wise" is the true story of Naomi Wise and her murder at the hands of Jonathan Lewis around 1807 or 1808 in Randolph County, North Carolina. Jonathon Lewis was to marry the well-off Hettie Elliott of Asheville when he learned that young Ms. Wise, whom he "visited" as he travelled between Randolph County and Asheville, was pregnant.

"(Down on the)Banks of the Ohio" is another 19th century American murder ballad. Similar in theme to another song from the same period, "Pretty Polly", both songs tell the sad tale of a villain named Willie who is driven to murder when his love rejects his marriage proposal as they walk along the banks of the river.

Many of these songs of love-come-to-a-tragic-end were very popular for decades after the crimes they tell of, and have become American standards played by many performers to this day. Perhaps it is the gruesomeness of the crimes that continue to hold our interest. Just like the campfire ghost stories and bloody slasher movies, these murder ballads stir a darker side of our collective psyche.

Louvin Brothers - Knoxville Girl.mp3
From: Tragic Songs of Life, originally released 1956.
Buy it at

G. B. Grayson - Ommie Wise.mp3
First recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, 1927 by G. B. Grayson.
From: Anthology of American Folk Music.
Buy it at Smithsonian Folkways

Blue Sky Boys - Down On The Banks Of The Ohio .mp3
Available on a magnificent 5-CD set entitled The Sunny Side Of Life, that contains all of this legendary brother duet's recordings for the Bluebird and Victor labels from 1936 through 1950.
Buy it at County Sales

Bill & Belle Reed - Old Lady and the Devil.mp3
A little more light-hearted than the first two and not really a murder ballad, but could explain the extraordinary number of murder ballads.
Also From: Anthology of American Folk Music.
Buy it at Smithsonian Folkways


Anonymous When You Awake said...

Hey! I just stumbled onto your blog from Setting the Woods on Fire and just wanted to say that I really like what you have going on over here!

Jody and When You Awake

November 21, 2008 1:01 AM  

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